Think of the United States and food, and it doesn’t take long to conjure up images of cheeseburgers and fries, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chili dogs. However, while Hawaii is the 50th state, its unique location in a part of the Pacific Ocean known as Polynesia, a relative stone’s throw from Asia, the cuisine of the Hawaiian islands have a distinct identity.
That’s not to say the U.S. mainland staples are not on the menu, they are, and many vacationers happily graze their way through the tastes of home on their trip to the islands.
However, if you want to get closer to the foods that fill the plates of the locals, make sure you try these 5 Hawaiian dishes:
1) Loco Moco
Sticky rice is an island staple that is usually served in two scoops and forms the basis for most local dishes, including the hugely popular loco moco.
Start with rice, add a hamburger patty, drown it in brown gravy and top with two fried eggs (over easy is best) and get set for a flavor combination that shouldn’t work in principle but strangely does.
It takes some getting used to watching vivid yellow yolk tumble over brown-gravy-soaked rice, but don’t let that put you off. Eat it once and crave it forever.
This dish is particularly popular post surf.
Eggs and gravy? Loco moco is particularly popular with surfers. Photo by Tavallai.
2) Kalua Pig
Salt and smoke are what make kalua pig so distinctly tasty. This dish is traditionally served at a luau, a Hawaiian party that comprises a feast and entertainment, but the dish is widely available in restaurants and street food stalls, as well.
Kalua means to cook in an underground oven, and that is the traditional method that creates the distinct taste. Oven roasting is now more practical and common, but no less tasty.
Try it served with cabbage and expect the usual two scoops of sticky rice.
Smoky and salty kalua pig is a luau favorite dish. Photo by www.bluewaikiki.com.
3) Spam Musubi
Spam (pork and ham from a can for those not in the know) is a wartime staple that lives on in the Hawaiian islands where it is so popular that several million cans are consumed each year. A popular way to get your Spam fix in Hawaii is to eat it on the go.
Find a convenience store and you should easily come by a shelf of Spam Musubi. This playful take on sushi comprises a fried slice of Spam placed over a mound of sticky rice bound together by a strip of nori seaweed.
Even if Spam isn’t your thing, try it at least once for the experience.
Playful Spam musubi should be tried at least once. Photo by bandita.
Fresh fish is both widely available and magnificent throughout Hawaii, as you might expect from a location surrounded by so much ocean.
Poke takes advantage of the catch of the day and is one of the best dishes to try while in Hawaii. Made from raw fish that is marinated in soy sauce, chili peppers, green onions, seaweed and oil, the freshness of the ocean is captured in all its fishy finery.
Seek out poke made with ahi tuna (yellowfin) and don’t forget to crack open a chilled bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for the perfect accompaniment.
Poke makes the most of the island’s fresh fish. Photo by torus.
The Portuguese can be thanked for bringing this sweet treat to Hawaii. These sugar-coated donuts are a small bite of heaven, particularly when stuffed with the flavors of the islands.
Fruit centers from mango to papaya are delicious but it’s hard to beat the coconut cream. If you visit Hawaii for Fat Tuesday, also known as Malasadas Day, expect to see these donuts consumed in significant quantities as people deep fry their excess lard and sugar before Lent.
Delicious malasadas—try them with coconut. Photo by blueant808.
Hawaii is a place where American and Asian cuisines blend, so get set for cuisine where anything goes and always expect a serving of macaroni salad on the side.
Have you tried Hawaiian cuisine? Do you have a favorite dish? Let me know in the comments below.
If you liked this article, you might also like: Hiking Hawaii’s Most Explosive Volcano.
Main photo: Digging up dinner—kalua pig at a luau. Photo by akeg.